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NSG Visit October 24, 1998

Topham Print Exhibit

at Warner Castle


Donovan A. Shilling

Twenty-three members of the New Society of the Genesee were among those attending a special exhibition of flower and fruit prints drawn from the collection of Society member John M. Topham. The exhibition and a tour of the grounds was held on Saturday, October 24, 1998, at the old mansion called Warner Castle located just off Mount Hope Avenue at 5 Castle Park in Rochester, New York.

John Topham is an avid collector of early American lithographs and prints and has specialized in acquiring the very rare and magnficent fruit and floral prints of James Vick, a prominent Rochester publisher and seedsman during the Victorian Era. Calling his exhibit of over fifty prints, catalogs, and other colorful nursery stock advertising, Rochester's Beautiful Industry: Flower and Fruit Prints of the Rochester Seed and Nursery Industry in the Nineteenth Century, John has reawakened a long forgotten facet of the remarkable part Rochester's horticultural firms played in making America blossom.

His collection is a tribute not only to James Vick's advertising genius, but also to the artists, printers and lithographers who produced and published his highly colorful floral prints, seed packages, and seed and nursery catalogs. Among the exhibit's more unusual specimens is a complete fold-out sales booklet containing scores of hand-painted plates of fruit trees and other nursery stock.

One such edition was produced by Dellon Marcus Dewey, a Rochester publisher and bookseller. Joseph Prestele combined his art work on the stencilled, then hand-colored specimen pictures of nursery varieties. The sales booklet contained one-hundred-thirty brightly painted plates. With such a booklet a "tree peddler" might interest potential buyers of Rochester's nursery stock as their sales trips took them from farm to farm across New York, Ohio, Michigan and later the Mid-West.

John Topham provided the group with a personal account of his exhibit and its origins. This was followed by a brief report of the life and accomplishments of James Vick who was born in 1813 in Hampshire, England, came to this country, and was working as a printer in 1830.In 1850 he was editor of The Genesee Farmer and in 1853 purchased The Horticulturalist. Vick also developed a large business selling seeds to farmers in Europe as well as this country. In his seed catalogs he advertized chromo-lithographs for sale. They were available embossed and varnished in frames for $2.50.

The publication of seed and fruit catalogues contributed to the growth of a booming lithography industry in Rochester. William Karle, Charles Messing, and Frank A. Stecher pioneered in printing colorful seed packets and nursery catalogues used by both local and other seedsmen across America. Their master lithographers painstakingly turned out thousands of grandly colored plates for more than a score of local nurseries and seedsmen. Dewey produced 2300 chromo-lithographs in the 1850s for nurserymen. Today these splendidly illustrated catalogues, floral prints, and seed packets command some very respectable prices at auctions and antique shows.

Rochester became the publication center for numerous journals such as The Rural New Yorker, The Genesee Farmer, The Horticulturalist, all devoted to horticultural and agricultural endeavors. A. M. Purdy, an orchardist, published the Cottage Gardener for nine years. He sold colorful prints for 25 with a subscription to his magazine.

Local seed growers formed the Genesee Valley Horticultural Society, The Fruit Growers of Western New York and the Monroe County Agricutural Society while others established the Genesee Valley Agricultural Society. They initiated county fairs and arranged to hold the New York State Fair at the Driving Park in Rochester from 1843 to 1851.

Rochester, known for its flour and called The Flour City; now had become The Flower City as well. Along East Avenue, on Mount Hope Avenue, down Park and Monroe Avenues, out Clifford Avenue and Norton Street great fields of flowers and nursery stock bloomed. There was a vast acreage under cultivation growing seedling trees and flowers for seed, and many orchards devoted to the development of finer fruit in a great circle of farms extending through Gates, Greece, Mendon, Brighton, Pittsford, Perinton, Penfield and Irondequoit. In springtime the orchards and flower fields turned the entire county into an immense rainbow of color, its air perfumed by their blossoms.

Asa Rowe's Monroe Garden and Nursery opened in Greece, New York, in 1833. Electus Broadman converted his fruit orchard into a nursery in 1843, first in the city. Soon after, German-born George Ellwanger teamed up with Irishman Patrick Barry to form the nation's largest nursery. James Vick and Charles F. Crosman built huge seed businesses. Dozen of other nursery and seedsmen followed: including Hiram Sibley, Joseph Harris, Frank Costich, Alonzo Frost, Charles A. Green, Horace Hooker, Donald C. Brown, George B. Hart, Chase, and the Briggs Brothers. The 1886 directory listed 38 nurserymen and seedsmen. They improved orchard fruits, and sent their young trees to be planted throughout the Genesee Country and westward to the plains states. They developed better strains of vegetables and showier flowers and sent their seeds in colorful packets to planters all across this country and abroad.

John Topham's floral print and catalog exhibit was at the Rochester Civic Garden Center, a "non-profit horticultural education center." Society of the Genesee member Jean Czerkas who has done much research on the The Castle and the Warner family told us the history of the mansion from its construction in 1854. Horatio Gates Warner, publisher of a daily mid-nineteenth century Rochester newspaper called the Advertiser designed his own house with towers and battlements to resemble a Scottish castle. It became known as Warner Castle. The city of Rochester bought it in 1951 after intervening owners. Since 1964 has been leased by the Garden Center. Originally the ivy-covered home had twenty-two rooms. Many, such as the drawing room with its Carrara marble fireplace and elaborately coffered ceiling are still impressive.

After the program and after viewing the prints and catalogs in the gallery we went outside through the octagon-shaped entry, and followed Mrs. Czerkas around the blocky limestone structure, with its crenelated 22-inch-thick walls, corner turrets, and central tower to view its fabled sunken garden. Here there are surrounding stone walkways, and steps leading down to a lower level with a fountain, a pool and a view through three arched doorways to a descending lawn. Mrs. Merry Dennis, owner at one time of the Castle and heir to her husband's million dollar estate, contracted Alling S. DeForest to build the garden. He also designed many of George Eastman's gardens.

Jean Czerkas directed the restoration of the garden. She told us about the repair of the stonework and the generous help of Rochester area nurserymen in providing and planting replacement shrubs. With her husband and members of the Garden Center she continues to do much of the maintenance of this unique local treasure.

The Rochester Civic Garden Center maintains a 4000 volume library exclusively devoted to all aspects of horticulture. The Garden Center is open from 9:30 to 3:30 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and 9:30 to 12:30 on Saturdays except for holiday weekends. Annual Membership is $15, single; $20, dual.

© 1998, Donovan A. Shilling
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